The early days of space exploration were all about stretching the limits of the possible. Charged by international politics and public enthusiasm for a bright technological future, they made practical sense in light of the awareness that, sooner or later – whether it’s in a million years’ time or next week – a large asteroid or supernova radiation blast will hit our planet, and we’d better know how to deflect it or at least not have all our eggs in one basket. Existential concerns like this don’t hold much sway with struggling taxpayers, however, and over time it became harder and harder to raise public funds for space travel. Experts agreed that the only sustainable way forward would be commercial. The industry would have to generate enough money to fund itself. Are we nearly there yet?
Are we, in fact, already there? National space agencies are already drawing on private money connected to scientific research projects that can only be carried out in very low gravity conditions such as those found in orbit when a vessel is in freefall. The different way combustion works, the absence of convection currents and the varying ways that crystals form mean that all sorts of experiments are possible that wouldn’t be on Earth. It’s an area of huge interest for pharmaceuticals because cell membranes behave differently, making it possible to understand a lot more about how they interact with different chemicals. We are fast reaching the point where the money generated by this can pay for space missions rather than merely subsidizing them.
A point of interest for the general public is space tourism. Might you one day be able to go into space yourself? The answer is almost certainly yes – and if you have $250,000 to spend, it could even be this decade. According to leading sector investor Dylan Taylor, we have only a couple of years to go before space planes are routinely taking tourists into orbit, and work is already underway on the design of orbital hotels where visitors will be able to stay for several days experiencing weightlessness and observing our planet from above. Flying, rather than being shot into space by rockets, is a gamechanger in terms of reducing both the monetary cost and the carbon footprint of getting into orbit.
The next big step after putting tourists in orbit is taking them to the Moon. Lunar hotels are likely to be an important stepping stone to setting up industrial Lunar colonies. Current thinking is that they can be built primarily from regolith, reducing the amount of material that needs to be transported to the site from Earth. Experts working in the field believe that work will be underway on them within ten to 20 years and that they will be operational by 2050. Unlike orbital hotels, they won’t just keep guests cooped up in a small space but will be able to offer them the opportunity to go outside and walk on the Lunar surface. They will make regular Earth to Moon flights financially viable.
Alongside the tourist trade, the biggest factor currently attracting commercial operators to the Moon is the potential for mining there. In particular, the Moon is rich in high-grade, ultra-pure helium, which has numerous applications in medicine and the manufacture of high-grade instrumentation. As supplies of helium of this quality run low on Earth, forcing up the price, the idea of extracting it from the Moon and shipping it back here becomes commercially attractive. Serious initiatives are in development and it’s likely that this will begin within the next 30 years, with canisters of helium being parachuted down to Earth to cut out the need for further expensive flights.
If the Moon looks like an attractive source of some rare materials, that’s nothing to the riches of the asteroid belt, which is likely to be the big factor driving commercial space flights further afield within the next few decades. Some companies are hoping to begin this work within a few years. It requires precision navigation because, despite the way they look in illustrations, the asteroids are very far apart from one another. However, towing one made from a rare element back to Earth could be of tremendous value. It could potentially revolutionize the computer and telecommunications industries. The technology developed for this purpose is what is eventually likely to lead us to Mars and the ultimate in this century’s space tourism, but the asteroids themselves are the more attractive commercial prospect.
Once men do get to Mars, the prospects offered by a planet whose shape makes it possible to literally walk out of the atmosphere, and which is also rich in elements used to make fuel, are considerable. It will never be a great place to live but, as the launchpad for the further exploration of space, it’s bursting with potential. This decade, the first stage of our journey begins.